Now, That’s Italian!

The Syracuse Herald-Journal

November 13, 1996

By Lori Duffy

Leo Bertozzi assumed the woman he met at Italy’s Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese factory 10 years ago was of Italian heritage.

She came with a group of Americans and asked Bertozzi, the cheese consortium’s international marketing director, to give them a tour.They wanted to see where the original Parmesan cheese has been made since the Middle Ages. They wanted to meet the cheese masters, who save a bit of each day’s batch to start the next day’s cheese.

“She had more or less Italian characteristics,” Bertozzi said. “She was open. She liked food. She spoke Italian. Not perfectly. She made a good impression.”

Nancy Radke so impressed Bertozzi that four years later he hired the Syracuse entrepreneur to educate Americans about the original Parmesan cheese and to protect its name.

He hired her even after he learned she hasn’t an ounce of Italian blood. Her ancestors come from northern and eastern Europe, but her palate’s loyalties clearly are with Italy.

“We needed somebody who knew not only about the cheese, but also about the tradition and the culture,” Bertozzi said. “She combines all aspects, which is what we needed.”

With Bertozzi’s help, Radke, 44, has made a successful career of her love for Italian cooking and its fine ingredients. She works with Parmigiano-Reggiano and other Italian cheese makers through her company, CIAO (pronounced “chow”).

The need for protection stems from American intrigue with foreign cuisines. Americans are demanding original ingredients. Cheese is like wine, Radke said. It is named after regions and it must be made with local ingredients to be certified.

All the cheese makers in the Parmigiano-Reggiano region united in a consortium to protect their product. That means no other Parmesan cheese is certified, Radke said. Educated Americans are beginning to realize that, Radke said.

An American company recently tried to use the trademarked name “Parmigiano,” hoping to attract buyers, Radke said. Radke hired a lawyer last year who successfully sued for Parmigiano-Reggiano.

One of the people Radke won over with her campaign for Parmigiano-Reggiano is Chuck Williams, founder of Williams Sonoma, which sells fine cooking equipment. Williams said he decided to try the cheese at a trade show after he met Radke.

“She has a passion for it, and that really shows,” Williams said. “I love it. If you’re ever around one of those wheels that’s just been split in half and you taste it, you’re hooked.”

Williams was so hooked, he now sells Parmigiano-Reggiano through his catalog. Customers get it from Italy within three weeks of its cutting in Parma, Italy. It is shrink-wrapped to protect the flavor.

“I thought it was so wonderful and I thought Americans should know it’s not just grated cheese. It’s a cheese you eat with wine,” Williams said.

CIAO mates well with Radke’s other business, a partnership with DeWitt photographer Jim Sherzi called Visual Tastes. Together, Radke and Sherzi capture the images of culinary art for magazines and other advertising media.

Many clients, like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Ascoli Piceno, use the services of both companies.

Radke will meet Monday with two executives from Ascoli, an Italian company Mayor Roy Bernardi persuaded to come to Syracuse.

Ascoli plans to begin distributing its stuffed green olives and deep-fried vegetables from Syracuse this month. The company hopes to build a plant here.

Radke is promoting the food to retailers as appetizers best served with champagne or microbrews.

Through Visual Tastes, she developed brochures that show retailers how to prepare and serve the Ascoli foods. She made brochures for Parmigiano-Reggiano that show retailers how to properly cut wheels of the company’s cheese.

“I have too much fun,” Radke said. “I really enjoy what I do. The food design keeps that art side of my mind alive.”

Art was Radke’s original pursuit. She graduated from Syracuse University in 1974 with a bachelor’s of fine arts in interior design. That’s where she met her husband, Gary Radke, who studied Medieval and Italian Renaissance art history.

She worked as an interior designer in several cities until 1978, when Gary Radke won a two-year grant to study in Italy. They moved to Rome. Radke spent her days watching the Italian women in their building cook.

Each evening she would go to the market, buy all the same ingredients and try to make the same dishes. It was during those days that she learned to appreciate Italian culture through cooking. She also learned the language.

The second year took them to Florence, where the American women in their church asked Radke to share her new knowledge. Teaching became part of her life from then on.

In 1980, Gary Radke landed a job at Syracuse University. He had a steady income for the first time. That meant Nancy Radke could finally give up interior design and pursue her true interest, Italian cooking.

She became director of the Country Kitchen Cooking School in Fayetteville, where she also taught classes. She gave that up in 1982 to spend another two years in Italy with her husband.

This time, she spent her days in Italy learning the various regional cuisines. She started a newsletter for her former students back in Syracuse. Her mother-in-law, Judy Radke, published and distributed it.

Radke kept the newsletter for nine years. She had 2,000 subscribers in the United States and in several other countries. The articles focused on fine Italian ingredients and how to use them. She also taught cooking at University College and occasionally did some food-styling.

In 1990, two years after her daughter, Lydia, was born, Radke decided that wasn’t enough. She wanted a full-time career.

That’s about when Bertozzi decided his company needed a U.S. representative. They ran into each other at a food show. He recognized her immediately, he said.